“I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction. ”
- By Sir Peter Duffell
- Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
- Pages: 290
- Illustrations: Black and white illustrations plus 8 page colour plate section
- ISBN: 9781526730572
- Published: 16th October 2019
The Scarlet Thread of Lali.
A profusion of lali, the distinctive red piping that adorns the full dress uniform of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and one of their antecedent regiments, was evident in the large and well appointed crowd that attended the book launch of Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell’s Gurkha Odyssey at the National Army Museum this November.
A glance at the black and red dicing which ivied the neckties of many amongst that small sea of dark jackets, some proudly rifle green, listening intently to the author talk in the clean, antiseptic, surroundings of the strip lit Foyle Centre conference room on the lower ground floor, could leave a viewer with no doubts that the principle pre amalgamation regiment represented in the audience was the 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Goorkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles.)
This scarlet thread of regimental tradition snakes back all the way to the siege of Delhi in 1857 and is picked up on the spine of General Duffell’s book, where the Sirmoor badge is prominently displayed, the prince of Wales’ feathers surrounded by a moat of lali. A significant device, bound to evoke 200 years of regimental achievements to all those present who, wether they were Sirmoors or not, at one time or another, wore or wear the emblem of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The crossed kukri’s shone brightly on many a lapel that night.
Rightly so the Royal Gurkha Rifles still take the histories and traditions of the regiment’s that came before them very seriously, indeed they always have, for since the earliest times of service in the EIC’s Bengal Army, the Gurkhas and especially the Sirmoors have striven to maintain their separate and singular identity apart from ‘the ruck,’ as Peter Duffell explains in Gurkha Odyssey.
Since the defence cuts in 2004-2006, when as Brigadier Allan Mallinson put it, ‘Regiments whose names the Duke of Wellington would have seen each day in the “morning states” during the long years of the Peninsular War and Waterloo’ dissapeared from the army’s order of battle, the regimental traditions, once central to the high standards of the British Army have come under threat. With once distinguished Regiments being reduced to Battalions in larger, unfamiliar, and as yet impersonal district and national, ‘super Regiments’ which for many swallowed the individual character of the units assigned to them.
Therefore just as the simple flash of red piping on a green uniform can conjure to those who learned the ‘Sirmoor system’ the narrative of Gurkha Odyssey is bound up with the threads of a proud regimental legacy of service, duty and sacrifice. It is a celebration of the virtues of the Gurkha soldier as well as a personal journey.
Duffell’s long association with the Gurkhas, his Odyssey, began when national service brought him into the ranks of the 60th Rifles. Here he started a learning process, quite distinct from basic training and other initiations necessary for national servicemen and volunteers. The Rifle Brigade’s cherished traditions are based on their motto ‘quick and bold,’ which refers to a soldier’s mind as well as his physical ability and it is no coincidence that both the 60th Rifles and the Sirmoor Rifles shared a great many ideals. Wishing to continue in a military career, Duffell, then a junior officer was advised to apply to join the 2nd Goorkhas, a ‘sister’ unit of the 60th, with an association going back to when the Gurkhas were a ‘Local Battalion’ proving themselves in action alongside the 60th at Delhi Ridge in 1857.
Learning the ‘Sirmoor system’ was chief among the responsibilities for all newly arriving officers and men at Slim Barracks, Singapore during the mid-20th century. For British officers, much depended, and still does, on how a new arrival is able to adapt to the special requirements of Gurkha service, demanded by their founder, General Frederick Young, which even a casual glance at memoirs from officers, and indeed the rare accounts of Riflemen, who have served in the Gurkhas, will tell you have not changed since the inception of the Goorkha Local Battalions in 1815 by Frederick Young.
A key theme in General Duffell’s book is the importance and steadying influence of tradition and history, in not only a regiment, but in it’s members. He does this by beginning the book with his own introduction to military life and his new regiment, which he joined on its highest and holiest day, Delhi Day. This allows the author to interrupt his own remembrances of service and introduce the notable moments of regimental history, and indeed wider Gurkha Brigade history, which also has it’s influence, before returning to the events he witnessed himself, which now form part of their lali edged legacy. A particularly striking moment stood out to me as I read through the chapter dedicated to the Afghan Wars and came to a subheading labelled ‘The Fourth Afghan War’ which summarised some of the recent service of the regiment. It’s attendant start date was clear but a question mark stood beside it. This conflict, which occurred and is indeed still occurring during my own lifetime has it’s own place in the story, but is as yet an unfinished unfinished chapter.
Fittingly the section relating to the Gurkhas in those much forgotten post war conflicts in Malaya and Borneo during the last century, where the author saw active service alongside many veterans of the war with Japan, takes centre stage as the book progresses. Then as now in the ‘4th Afghan War’ operations were carried out in remote and difficult-to-access regions against a numerous and dogged enemy, where the employment of heavily armed patrols and a great dependence on Helicopters pervaded. The tough and amiable qualities of the Gurkha soldier are never better showcased than in such unconventional campaigns where the local population need befriended and the insurgent enemy suppressed.
No book about the Gurkhas ever fails to observe the humour and stoicism of the Nepalese Riflemen and the author’s adroit turn of phrase and polished imagery brings these qualities, and many individual vignettes, to life in softly humorous style. At the launch itself many of the anecdotes contained in the book, such as the Wodehousian manner of a rifleman as he alerted his officer to the presumptuous appearance of the enemy, drew appreciative laugher from the audience. The General’s extensive travels and his great familiarity with the language and character of Nepal allows him to describe with ease and confidence, themes and places far removed from Catterick and Shorncliffe.
This book shows us how vital the Gurkhas have been to the success of the British Army and to the defence of the realm in peace and war, not least the positive impact the existence of Gurkha Regiments has on Nepal and the good investment the loyal and long serving Nepalis represent for Britain. It offers examples of the distinctive role this corps has played in the past and that which is continues to play today and into the future.
A word must be retained for the visual matter included in the volume, with delicate sketch portraits of Gurkha servicemen adorning most of the chapter headings and not a few watercolour scenes in the well illustrated plate sections executed in a controlled yet free, atmospheric style by Ken Howard OBE RA.
In finishing the book, I reflected on the sure but humble way in which the author gave his talk and how the tone of his writing seemed to match his personality. Since that night I have discovered that many of the soldiers I occasionally converse with over social media had served at one time or another under his command in Hong Kong and each, even those from other regiments, remember him fondly.
Where would we be without the Gurkhas?
On the night of the launch the obvious affection reserved for him was impossible to ignore as an extensive line of well wishers formed to have books signed. The manner in which he interacted with them and comrades alike was moving to see. A kind word and a handshake came with each signature, and I overheard a dignified Nepalese serviceman, his rank obscure in his civilian clothes, but his regimental affiliation obvious, observe to a retired gentleman of the Gurkha Logistics Corps, how proud he was of Sir Peter and how pleased he was at he turnout, even if he had expected more senior Gurkha officers to have attended. Trust me when I say, it would have been difficult to fit many more people in.
Peter Duffell ends his odyssey on a hopeful note, observing that though in small ways the Gurkha soldier has changed since the 1960’s, the changes are only positive for the new recruits passing through to Catterick from Pokhara. His views on the future of the regiment he helped to shape when the future of the Brigade was in jeopardy are no less encouraging.
The new challenges the Royal Gurkha Rifles must face in a changing, increasingly nationalised, world will further shape the regiment and it was announced this year that for the first time girls will undertake the formidable selection course alongside the thousands of boys eager to prove themselves, meanwhile the 70 year old agreement ensuring the ever reliable pool of recruits comes under reappraisal. As ever vigilance will be required to see the RGR through, but I have no doubt that they will ever succeed to rise to the challenge.
I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction.